In this OUPblog series, Lena Cowen Orlin, author of the “detailed and dazzling” The Private Life of William Shakespeare, explores key moments in the Bard’s life. From asking just when was Shakespeare’s birthday, to his bequest of a “second-best bed,” to his own funerary monument, you can read the complete series here.
How did Stratford’s Shakespeare become a London playwright?
Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote in 1709 that the author married “while he was yet very young.” He then fell in with a bad crowd that “made a frequent practice of deer-stealing” from Warwickshire magnate Sir Thomas Lucy. Lucy prosecuted Shakespeare so vigorously that he “was obliged to leave . . . and shelter himself in London.” Rowe concluded: “though it seemed at first to be a blemish upon his good manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily proved the occasion of exerting one of the greatest geniuses that ever was known in dramatic poetry.”
Indeed, as the Stratford-upon-Avon parish register confirms, Shakespeare was just 18 and still a minor when he wed in 1582. From there, though, confirming evidence was scarce for an account probably based in dubious oral history. The editor Edmond Malone, who searched archives in Stratford and elsewhere, did not believe the local legend. He and others assembled documents out of which they built a different narrative about Shakespeare’s migration to London. His wife was eight years older than he; she was pregnant when they married; the couple secured a special wedding license from the Bishop of Worcester. To nineteenth-century biographers, it looked as if a mature and predatory woman had sexually entrapped a naïve young man, dragging him to the altar for a shameful shotgun wedding. They quoted Orsino in Twelfth Night—“Let still the woman take / An elder than herself”—and referred to Venus and Adonis. The will in which Shakespeare left his wife nothing more than his “second-best bed” put the punctuation mark on this new theory for why he left Stratford: he was fleeing a wife whom he despised from beginning to end.
In fact, as the quantitative analysis of wedding and baptismal records reveals, up to a third of late-sixteenth-century brides were pregnant when they married. Pregnancy was often the signal to a committed couple that the time had come for them to cease living as wage earners and establish their own household and, so long as the liaison led to marriage, no disgrace attached. In contemporary courts, women were charged and shamed for sleeping with men to whom they were not married. They were never censured or slandered for having slept with their own husbands (even prematurely). As for the will, Malone was wrong to assert that the bed cut off Shakespeare’s wife. The family’s acquisitions of property were due in no small part to Anne Hathaway’s own contributions through their working partnership, and the law protected her property rights during her widowhood. Shakespeare died in Stratford, which, through all the London years, he always regarded as home.
The traditional accounts of his first journey to London depict him as a victim of his own ill-considered adolescent behaviour. He made himself susceptible to coercion, whether by Sir Thomas Lucy or by Anne Hathaway, and he ran away. But there is a new way of looking at this origin story: he elected not to follow in the footsteps of his father.
“Traditional accounts . . . depict [Shakespeare] as a victim of his own ill-considered adolescent behaviour. . . . But there is a new way of looking at this origin story.”
John Shakespeare was born into a family of tenant farmers. He achieved a crafts apprenticeship in the nearest market town, where he became so successful as a leather worker and glove maker that he branched out into wool wholesaling, moneylending, and civic leadership. He was already a town alderman when Shakespeare was born in 1564. When Shakespeare was four, his father was named bailiff, Stratford’s highest office. By the time Shakespeare was 13, however, his father’s business had failed and John Shakespeare was forced into “hiding” to evade his creditors. He was sued repeatedly, was probably gaoled, and ceased attending meetings of the town council.
Shakespeare, meanwhile, was on the same life path. Living in a market town, he was scheduled to be apprenticed at age 17 in a mercantile craft. Local lore had it that he was placed with a butcher. But Shakespeare’s apprenticeship indenture is lost, so we must look to other examples to learn that he would have trained for seven years, until he was 24. Surviving indentures also routinely spelled out that the apprentice had to be obedient to his master. He had to protect his master’s possessions. In addition, “fornication he shall not commit; matrimony he shall not contract.”
If Shakespeare wanted to break the terms of his indenture at age 18, a creative way of doing so was to give evidence of fornication and to oblige himself to wed. Anne Hathaway’s pregnancy and the early marriage were the keys to his becoming an actor and writer rather than, say, a butcher. To my mind, Shakespeare’s is a story of intentionality, with London as the aim rather than a hapless accident.
Featured image: Shakespeare’s family circle via Wikimedia Commons, public domain